Monday, July 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Is James Wisniewski the missing piece for Stanley Cup-contending Lightning?

TAMPA — As if being injured and out of hockey, potentially for good, wasn't depressing enough for defenseman James Wisniewski last season, he even had trouble playing with his two young daughters.

Wisniewski, 32, rehabbing a torn ACL for the fourth time, couldn't keep up with Jamie, 31/2, and Sadie, 2, in their Raleigh, N.C. home.

"I had two little kids that want to play with daddy, but daddy's (ticked) off at the world, a little upset," Wisniewski said. "I'm hurt, and they want me to play around with them and I can't. And then I worry about, 'Is my career over?' "

He had doubts, especially when the July 1 free agency period came and he got no calls. But the Lightning, in need for a right-shot defenseman to spark its 28th-ranked power play, made a low-risk, possibly high-reward bet, offering the 11-year veteran a training camp tryout.

Is Wisniewski a missing piece for a Stanley Cup contender? The veteran still must earn a spot, so his expected debut in tonight's preseason opener against the Hurricanes at Amalie Arena is the beginning of an equally intriguing and important audition.

"It feels like my first training camp ever," Wisniewski said. "It's a little nerve-wracking, but I'm also excited. I'm ready to rock and roll."

• • •

Wisniewski thought last season would be his comeback year.

He was motivated after not playing in the 2014-15 playoffs with Anaheim, which traded Wisniewki to Carolina at the ensuing draft.

"A fresh start," he said.

But in the second shift of the season opener against Nashville, Wisniewski got tangled along the boards, then crumpled awkwardly to the ice.

"I heard a big pop," Wisniewski said." And, unfortunately, I know that sound, what it means."

Wisniewski had torn his right ACL at age 18, 23, and 24; this was his left. But this was his loneliest rehab. He and his wife, Nicole, had just moved to Raleigh, far from their friends in Columbus, where the Canton, Mich., native had his best years for the Blue Jackets from 2011-14. Wisniewski didn't travel with the Hurricanes, rehabbing at a separate facility.

"It's probably the hardest thing I've had to go through in my personal hockey career, and in life in general," Wisniewski said. "You don't want an injury to decide your future; you'd like to end on your own terms. Granted, sometimes the game just passes you by, but at least that's on your own terms. I feel like I have a lot of years left, a lot of good years."

• • •

All Wisniewski needed was a shot. With one year left on his deal, at a $5.5 million cap hit, Wisniewski was bought out in June by Carolina. His phone didn't ring in free agency.

"Obviously not something I'm used to," he said. "A strange summer."

Wisniewski got proactive, doing research online to find out potential fits with teams. He looked for depth at right-shot defensemen, power plays that needed help. Then general manager Steve Yzerman called saying the Lightning wanted a right-shot defenseman for their man advantage. Frankly, Tampa Bay has sought that guy since Dan Boyle was traded in 2008.

"It fits my mold," Wisniewski said.

Wisniewski has 116 power-play points in his career (27 of his 53 career goals). Lightning assistant Todd Richards, who coached Wisniewksi in Columbus, said the 5-foot-11, 208-pound defenseman has a heavy shot with great vision and instincts.

"He's got a good feel for the offensive aspect of it," Richards said. "Some guys just have the knack."

Richards said Wisniewski's shot is better now, not necessarily harder, but he's more savvy with attempts that are ripe for deflections.

"He's given me fits in the past," said center Brian Boyle, a veteran penalty killer who faced Wisniewski while with the Rangers. "He's got a heavy shot, and smart enough to use it. He finds lanes. When I was in New York, he picked us apart a few times. He could be an asset, a great shot."

Will Wisniewski be part of it? Yzerman said he'll get every chance to make the team, and considering how often coach Jon Cooper uses seven defensemen, it's hard not to see Wisniewski there, even as a power-play specialist. Wisniewski's pitch begins tonight, fittingly against Carolina, and both Sadie and Jamie will be in the stands to see it.

"This is a team that can win it every year, and that's why we're all here, get our name on that Cup," Wisniewski said. "I've been playing this game long enough. It's time."

Nuts and bolts: Tampa Bay re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Nikita Nesterov to a one-year, $725,000 deal on Monday. That leaves only one restricted free agent, wing Nikita Kucherov, but no deal appears imminent. It could be a challenge, as the Lightning has between $5 million and $5.5 million in cap space, per CapFriendly.com. See tampabay.com/blogs/lightning for more.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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